Knocked Up

dir. Judd Apatow

As Ben in Judd Apatow's Knocked Up, Seth Rogen is a walking bong hit, his eyes perpetually glazed like doughnuts, his wardrobe consisting of whatever items were found closest to his bed. So slack is Ben that there's ample rope left over for knots—commitment to a ludicrous get-rich-quick scheme involving an online nude-scene database, say, or planting his seed in an E! channel host far out of his league. It's that second knot that is Knocked Up's premise: Ben meets a woman named Alison (Katherine Heigl) at a bar one evening, quips up a storm, and alcohol—or, in Alison's case, severe beer goggles—does the rest. Morning sickness, panic, and the worst post-one-night-stand reunion imaginable follow.

As with his last film, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Apatow has again left much room for improvisation; watching Knocked Up, you can't help but imagine him in an editing suite, picking from an extensive menu of takes à la carte for every scene. This time, however, the ramshackle structure gets the better of him. The film is completely off balance, laboring over riff-friendly minutiae, and rushing through far more engaging material. The jokes fire quickly, but while most of them hit, there's a surprisingly amateurish feel to the whole affair. Rogen and Heigl are more than game for the film's antics (one sex scene in particular will land hard with those couples who are, or are thinking of becoming, pregnant), and Apatow has surrounded them with an inspired supporting cast, but the film's heart winds up buried behind scenes better suited for the cutting-room floor. Apatow wants every character to shine—unfortunately, his comic generosity comes at the expense of the characters he wants us to care about the most. BRADLEY STEINBACHER

Severance

dir. Christopher Smith

Horror comedies can be crueler than their torture-porn brethren—what kind of sadist wants to make you giggle and shit your pants at the same time? Christopher Smith's Severance is plenty gross and the jokes can be obvious, but the British pseudo-satire is so playful that it's impossible to resent even the broadest swipes at comedy for very long. It's rude and lovable at the same time.

A busload of employees for a sinister government weapons contractor is wheeling around Eastern Europe, hawking wares to no doubt corrupt institutions and profiting off the specter of terrorism. Characters plucked straight out of The Office—and then buffed so their rosy personalities can be seen clear from the back of the auditorium—quarrel with each other and wince when their predictably un-PC boss says something crass. As a break from this onerous public-relations gambit, the team takes a Hungarian holiday to a luxury lodge. Except the lodge is a little creaky. There's a piping-hot meat pie waiting in the dining area. And there are some nasty, Communist-era historical archives in the woodshed.

Severance (oh yes, the title is a pun, though thankfully the civil meaning isn't stressed unduly) is crammed to the brim with early fake-outs and bloody sight gags. And in many ways it doesn't veer off the horror formula: You know the homeliest girl and the cockiest guy are going to get it quick. But the comedy is also salted with satire that's too clever to be strictly political. Are the bad guys in the woods escaped mental patients... or vengeful victims of the military-industrial empire? A firm answer either way would make the whole precarious joke come crashing down, so Severance remains mum.

My favorite thing about the film, though, isn't clever in the least. It's a conspicuous object displayed near the beginning of the film that, by all rights, really ought to be deployed in some horrible manner during the massacre that follows. The object is an enormous wheel of cheese. It plays no role other than to look creamy. It's a red herring—except, you know, pale yellow. And delicious. ANNIE WAGNER

Paris Je T'Aime

dir. Various

The idea for this movie has been done before and it will certainly be done again. Its first time was Six in Paris, a collection of short films made in 1965 by six new wave directors (half of which were Chabrol, Rohmer, and Godard). The shorts in Six in Paris, like the shorts in Paris Je T'Aime, are simple expressions of love for the city of light, the city of mirrors, the city of love. However, two things separate the old collection from the new: one, Paris Je T'Aime has three times more shorts than Six in Paris; second, the main contribution to the new collection of shorts is made by Hollywood directors (Wes Craven, the Coen Brothers, Alexander Payne, Alfonso CuarĂłn, Gus Van Sant, to name just a few of the so many). In essence, Paris Je T'Aime is a Hollywood vision of that city; and the position of that vision has the cultural distance of a tourist, or a honeymoon, or a business trip. In this cultural distance we find the reason for the high number of bad shorts in Paris Je T'Aime, the worst of which is the Coen Brothers' "Tuileries." What this short makes painfully apparent is that its star, Steve Buscemi, only knows how to play Steve Buscemi, and that Americans know close to nothing about the French. The only great segments in the collection were made by the French: Olivier Assayas and GĂ©rard Depardieu. Both directors used American actors: Maggie Gyllenhaal in Assayas's "Quartier des Enfants Rouges" and Gena Rowlands and Ben Gazzara in Depardieu's "Quartier Latin." What comes through in these shorts is the fact that the French know Americans better than Americans know themselves. But the point of this whole project is not to film people but to film Paris. As long as there is Paris there will be lots of movies about Paris. CHARLES MUDEDE

Steel City

dir. Brian Jun

If Bruce Springsteen doesn't get an annual kickback from Sundance, he probably should. Steel City, the debut film from director-writer-editor Brian Jun, certainly traffics in the familiar indie materials of broken-down homes, nowhere jobs, and tender punk heroes prone to sepia-toned flashbacks. To its credit, however, the story elements seem to stem more from actual blue-collar reality (Jun filmed in his southern Illinois hometown) rather than a festival-friendly script generator. At its best moments, it reminds us that most clichés have a kernel of truth somewhere inside.

Things begin with a muted bang, as cocky teenage protagonist PJ (Thomas Guiry) is questioned by the police after his father's (John Heard) arrest for vehicular homicide. Facing eviction from the family home, and unable to find support from his remarried mom (Laurie Metcalf) or self-destructive clod of an older brother, he reluctantly makes contact with his ramrod-stiff Vietnam vet uncle (Raymond J. Barry), who threatens to dispel the boy's last few shreds of self-delusion about his increasingly desperate situation. Meanwhile, a sympathetic dishwasher (America Ferrera) offers the slimmest of hopes for the future.

Although his dialogue occasionally wanders into outright speechifying, Jun demonstrates a knack for divulging the emotions of his mostly inarticulate characters, finding unexpected depths in their grunts and moans. While the execution is sometimes clumsy—there's at least one too many wailing power-ballad montages—his film benefits mightily from good performances across the board, particularly from old pros Heard (who also produced) and especially Barry, who effortlessly evokes the kind of prickly, puritanical relative that kids tend to shy away from at family barbecues. The result is an admirable, heartfelt effort that can't entirely escape conventions. To crib from the Boss: It ain't a beauty, but, hey, it's all right. ANDREW WRIGHT

Mr. Brooks

dir. Bruce A. Evans

Now, I'm no professional criminologist, but I'm pretty sure the desire to serial-kill other humans is not something you suddenly catch, like Ebola. It's not something like baldness, or clubfoot, that you inherit from stinky old gramps. It's also not something you just decide to pick up one afternoon because you're bored and other people are assholes.

Well oops-de-fucking-doo, Hollywood! Because that is like the whole plot of Mr. Brooks, my new least favorite movie. It opens with these chilling words: "The hunger has returned to Mr. Brooks's brain. It never really left." Oooooh! What hunger, I wonder? Hunger for tacos? Hunger for kettle corn? Nope! Try an insatiable hunger for shooting sexy youngsters in the head and then disposing of the evidence in his sinister kiln of HORRORS (he's also totally into ceramics).

Hungry Mr. Brooks (played by Kevin Costner and his pendulous neck flaps) isn't some rural creepo living in a tepee made of his mom's skin. (Though he does sometimes glue a squirrel to his face and call it a mustache.) Nor is he a seemingly innocuous middle-class creepo with a broken brain and a mundane job. Mr. Brooks is a wealthy, charming, beloved pillar of the community, who gets awards, makes speeches, and really loves his daughter. I don't buy that shit.

Mr. Brooks goes to AA meetings and elusively declares himself "an addict." He wants to kick the habit, but the evil part of his brain, which manifests as Marshall (an albino-ish William Hurt), is a truly persuasive nag. Brooks's dirty deeds are witnessed by some asshole with a zoom lens (Dane Cook, douchebag) and a-blackmailing they go, chased by a hot heiress detective (Demi Moore).

About halfway through, Mr. Brooks's disease proves contagious—and this movie becomes unsalvageable—when his sorority girl daughter (spoiler!) hacks someone to death with a hatchet. Sigh. This one's for you, children of rape victims and murderers! Anyone want kettle corn? LINDY WEST

Gracie

dir. Davis Guggenheim

This clunky sports movie is basically a vanity project—or, what's proportionally worse, a group vanity project—in which the family of Elisabeth Shue (Leaving Las Vegas) celebrates the way she personally paved the way for thousands of New Jersey girls to play serious soccer. Directed by her husband Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth) and conceived by her brother Andrew Shue, the film is conspicuously dedicated to her other, dead brother, who was good at soccer in high school before he fell out of a tree. But really it's about how young Elisabeth Shue—here called Gracie—battled sexism to become the first girl to play on her high school's varsity team.

In a paroxysm of false modesty, Shue plays her own ineffectual mom. Dermot Mulroney is Gracie's small-minded father, who enjoys giving his daughter positive messages like "You're not tough enough!" But after Gracie's older brother dies in a tragic car accident (many details have been changed to heighten the glamour quotient), she becomes determined to take his place on the varsity team. Sports movie clichés rain down in torrents.

The only compelling thing about Gracie is its white-blond star, Carly Schroeder. Glamour does not stick to this 15-year-old. She spends most of the movie sweaty and frizzy-haired and, truth be told, she's not particularly adept at the fancy footwork one expects from a soccer star. But she looks fierce and occasionally summons some terrific anger. Then you remember she's supposed to be Elisabeth Shue, the big Hollywood star, and any enthusiasm you might have felt drains quickly away. Gracie is no underdog's tale. ANNIE WAGNER

Once

dir. John Carney

The major selling point for this unpleasant slog through a banal musical about honkies in love is its star. Glen Hansard, formerly of Irish band the Frames, is supposed to be some kind of balladeer heartthrob in real life, but he seems like a twit.

Hansard's other movie credit is the guitar player in The Commitments. It was, at least according to Wikipedia, "a role he subsequently regretted, believing it distracted from his music career." Really? Like, you just couldn't wriggle free from those 13 minutes of C-level fame circa 1991? Twit.

Anyway, the movie: Irish twit busks the streets of Dublin and works at his father's vacuum-repair shop. Czech gal (Markéta Irglová, also of the Frames) pursues Irish boy. Their love is inevitable—a cheating girlfriend broke his heart; an indifferent babydaddy broke hers—and unconsummated. She fawns over his music and they put together a band and make a record that everyone, from the jaded studio manager to Irish boy's father, thinks is cool.

The problem is the awful fucking music, and, this being a musical, the awful fucking music sinks the ship. (The scene with Irglová singing while listening to headphones, walking down a Dublin street in her pajamas late at night, isn't bad. But that's only enough material for a music video.) Hansard's songs are all of the genus "mewling heartbreak." They begin with a plaintive honky honk and build to a strained honky howl—all of them repetitive, lazy, and cloying. Once isn't half bad when Hansard shuts the hell up and lets someone else get an emotion in edgewise. But mostly, it's barf. BRENDAN KILEY